It has been true for quite a number of years now, but perhaps more than any other year the best films of 2008 followed the pervasive trend of flying under the radar. Contrary to popular opinion, there were actually a lot of movies to write home about (so many of them foreign films), which is why I compiled more than 10 movies as memorable runner-ups in addition to my best 10 list. But how many people have actually seen most of them? This is probably not that surprising, as the economic downturn made the American studios even less likely than usual to widely release the cinematic treasures to the audience and, in any other year, movies like Let the Right One In and Waltz with Bashir might have had a chance to get more exposure and notice.
And yet, two of the year’s best movies managed to buck that trend from Hollywood by providing great blends of the commercial and the artistic. One was, of course, The Dark Knight, which, upon repeated viewing, shows its few weaknesses more clearly (namely in the final act where the characterization is not completely credible psychologically) but nevertheless still stands out as a riveting, towering achievement. The other is WALL·E, which used to be the type of movie that would stay under the radar in Pixar's animation studios until they established their name with great family entertainments. Many of those previous films were among the best of past years but with a greater leap of creative daring and ambition than before, they created an entertainment that hearkened back to the classic mantra of Walt Disney himself who did not make movies for children, as some assume, but for everyone. It was the summit achievement of the year.
Also, of note, I have not had the chance to fully review all the films that I had seen due to time constraints in the past year and I will try to catch up to them as best as I can in the coming months. So, without further ado, here is my list of the best films of the year:
1. WALL·E – I had said before that the word “wondrous” was created for movies like this one and now that I have watched it again with the sound off, that has become even truer. Not that the sound effects are not just as stellar as well but the first third in particular is simply a masterpiece of pure visual storytelling. Beyond the subtly effective environmental message and social commentary, you can simply look at the picture in this film by Andrew Stanton (who also directed Finding Nemo) and follow the awe of curiosity that the adorable robot, WALL·E, possesses in his eyes with the joy of re-watching silent comedy. Then, there is the love story between him and the female robot, EVE, which generates far more human emotion than any human romance with just a series of electronic purrs. Did I also mention that it is just a great science fiction story? Indeed, no other film throughout the year, animated or live-action, offered more versatile riches than this one.
2. Silent Light – A true one-of-a-kind masterwork if you are willing to meet it halfway. Set in the Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico, this immersive and languidly paced film recalls the best work of Carl Theodor Dreyer. It is a movie that requires patience, with dialogue almost as sparse as WALL·E and its unhurried storytelling of a family man who faces a crisis of faith as he falls in love with another woman. But, like Dreyer’s silent film classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc, its rewards are literally that of a miraculous leap, as it embodies and gives us emotional access to the values and beliefs of the community. In doing so, like any great film, it immerses us completely in another world with rare and resolute confidence. A great leap up for the Mexican artist turned filmmaker, Carlos Reygadas. This movie was originally released in Mexico back in late 2007 but I am including it this year, as I did not see it in time before picking last year’s list of the best films. It is now finally playing in select theaters across the US this January.
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Another movie that is technically a 2007 release (it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year) but gained a stateside release in 2008. If WALL·E and Silent Light immersed us in new worlds that we hardly knew about, this one directed by Cristian Mungju redefined the aesthetic of realism. With the pure filmmaking prowess of composing and shooting just one shot per scene, the movie paints an unforgettable, unsparing look at the cruelty women faced in the dictatorial Romanian regime and the difficult moral debate and reality of abortion. It also has two of the most naturalistic performances in a while in Anamaria Marinca as the brave, resourceful Otilia and Laura Vasiliu as the ungrateful best friend, Gabita, who makes Otilia go through every kind of suffering in arranging the backdoor abortion other than actually carrying the baby herself.
4. Let the Right One In – Offering a refreshing, original take on the vampire legend, this movie from Sweden is the one that, if there was justice in the world, would have grossed ten or even twenty times more money than the terribly mediocre Twilight did. Combining the moody introspection of Nosferatu with the harshness of childhood cruelty, this grave yet surprisingly warmhearted tale presents a most empathetic and captivating friendship between a 12-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl vampire who bond together beyond their natures because of need, loneliness, and desperation. It is also one of the most visually stunning works this year, as director Tomas Alfredson uses the key color of red to not only make the violence bleaker and more subtly unsettling but also to enhance the emotions the two characters feel.
5. Waltz with Bashir – A movie that uses animation to expand the possibilities of the documentary genre, Ari Folman’s self-critical account of the Israeli involvement in the 1982 Lebanon war makes an even more hallucinogenic companion piece to the great Apocalypse Now. The animated medium plays with and stretches perspective and accurately reflects the psychological concept of selective memory in the horrors of wartime. Then, after the interviewees’ memory dances around the central tragedy in the film, the final two-minute archival footage of the real-life massacre is a cold reality slap to the face. Alongside WALL·E, which could not be more different than this movie, as well as other lighter but skillful entertainments such as Kung Fu Panda, this year was a remarkable one for the animated field.
6. Flight of the Red Balloon – Now this is the way to honor a classic. The director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien does not stop at paying homage to the French children’s classic, The Red Balloon but makes a simultaneously light yet larger portrait of youth, theatrical artistry and how we utilize film and photography as our limited tools to “freeze” time and take snapshots like visual time capsules. Yet another film that has a leisurely pace and rhythm but it touches straight for the gentle, peaceful side in all of us. And still the red balloon metaphorically “watches” through the busy hustle of life to remind us that we need to step back from some of its pretenses.
7. The Dark Knight – The most popular movie of the year and it was a worthy one. The director, Christopher Nolan, surprised everybody with his 2005 reboot, Batman Begins, but it turned out to be a warm-up compared to this sequel that expands on the comic book movie genre in character, philosophy, and sheer epic scope. That is in no small part due to the late, great Heath Ledger’s wholly distinct and scary interpretation of The Joker, which leaves the audiences with sadness at the loss of a great actor, much like James Dean half a century ago. His character’s new breed of villainy challenges the will of the good in Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and D.A. Harvey Dent, as they are forced to make complex moral choices and deal with the inexorable consequences of tragedy. The terrific, more improved action sequences, namely with the Batpod, of course, provide some nice, extra icing on the cake.
8. The Wrestler – Featuring the performance of the year and the best comeback story from Mickey Rourke, Darren Aronofsky’s film unflinchingly shows the duality of the wrestling sport between play-acting and brutality, fame and the injurious price for it. The story also has a crucial counterpoint in Marisa Tomei’s character who is a stripper, which provides a savage commentary on how both professions of wrestling and pole dancing involve selling one’s own body as a product targeted towards the juvenile nature of men (whether physical violence or sex). The real-life baggage that surrounds Rourke no doubt helps in completely blurring the line between actor and character but the sublime nature of his acting is what really surprises and engages us.
9. The Visitor – This year also turned out to be a really shining one for great character actors getting their shots at lead roles and, along with Melissa Leo’s great work in Frozen River, Richard Jenkins got to hold the screen like a vice for a whole movie as a buttoned-down college professor whose life and generosity are opened up when he meets a couple of illegal immigrants who change his world in ways he did not expect. It is no surprise that the director, Thomas McCarthy is also a character actor and, with The Station Agent and now this one, he is proving to be a master of telling humanistic stories in the lowest and subtlest key. With its international cast including Israeli-Arab actress Hiam Abbass, this is one of the rare gems that wisely chooses valuable talent and heart over star power.
10. Slumdog Millionaire – The “crowd-pleasing” movie of the year, as it is labeled by ads and most audiences, although the best quality of the film is director Danny Boyle’s refusal to shy away from the drab conditions of the slums of India in the first half so that the underdog story of Jamal (played wonderfully by Dev Patel) really means something. Boyle’s trademark speedy visual flair is put to great use in seamlessly combining the Indian culture with a classically entertaining and romantic story in the tradition of Charles Dickens. Because of that and the dazzling cinematography, more people will discover the little known Indian culture, perhaps for the first time.
Runners-up (in alphabetical order):
The Chaser – An uncommonly effective Korean thriller that builds suspense and an angry social attack on its own police system while breaking practically every rule in the genre book. Also containing a remarkable performance from Kim Yoon-seok that breathes new meaning into the word “doggedness,” the movie has yet to get a release in the US and the rights have been bought for a remake but I hope this original work gets a release for the audiences to discover first.
A Christmas Tale – An engaging story of a Christmas family reunion fraught with troubled histories but one that is at turns honestly heartwarming and unpredictably facetious in its examination of the problems of mental illness, disease, and dysfunction thanks in great part to the performance of veteran actress Catherine Deneuve that exudes an amazingly calm presence despite her character suffering from cancer.
Doubt – John Patrick Shanley successfully adapts his own play that provocatively mauls over its titular concept in the setting of a Catholic school. All the actors, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, are exceptionally well cast to bring to life a psychological and spiritual morality tale of rare complexity.
Encounters at the End of the World – Werner Herzog journeys to Antarctica in this documentary to offer his own eccentric perspective on the extremes of nature. His poetically oddball, flatly ironic curiosity to explore peculiar environments (which always ends up becoming a perfect fit), his observations in his narration provide unique perspective and enthrallment on an already unique environment.
Frozen River – With an organically searing performance from the always dependable character actress Melissa Leo, this heartbreaking drama from Courtney Hunt is a timely and stark examination of how economic desperation forces two mothers (one played by Leo and the other also played confidently by Misty Upham) to cooperate in the illegal smuggling of aliens across the U.S.-Canadian border.
Happy-Go-Lucky – British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s movies always combine keen observation of social class with the spontaneity of everyday life and his latest turned his perceptiveness into the concept of bubbly happiness. The film is not a “feel-good” movie in the conventional sense but a deeper, more reassuring one in how even the most good-natured, upbeat person like Poppy (played with such infectious joy and zest by Sally Hawkins) may not be able to make everyone around her happy but can learn to take comfort in how she does not necessarily have to.
In Bruges – The kind of black comedy and thriller mix that only the British and Irish can pull off so effortlessly. Playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh (who won an Oscar for his short, "Six Shooter") starts the movie as a buddy-travel comedy between Colin Farrell’s hothead assassin and Brendan Gleeson’s more soulful hit man and slowly sneaks up and builds a more serious, philosophical core around the concept of Catholic guilt.
Iron Man – A more traditional superhero movie compared to The Dark Knight but one revivified by the light-footed performance from Robert Downey Jr. His work here, along with his role in Tropic Thunder, made the other memorable comeback story (alongside Rourke’s) and Jon Favreau used it as the bedrock to surround his film with pointed Catch-22-style satire, impressive but never overbearing visual effects and a nice romantic chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow.
I’ve Loved You So Long – A true showcase for British actress Kristin Scott Thomas who delivers the performance of her career in a foreign language (which is certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination though I fear not enough people will have seen it). Playing a woman coming back home to re-adjust to family life after being apart from them for 15 years, this French film is even better than the similarly themed and decent Rachel Getting Married because it relies on greater silences and pools of reserve.
Man on Wire – A documentary constructed like a nail-biter, this true account of Phillippe Petit’s wire act atop the World Trade Center fills us with marvel at his daring. The view of the buildings may sadden some but this film invites the audience to serenely recollect the buildings’ majestic qualities through what is called the “artistic crime of the century.”
Revolutionary Road – Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet re-unite for Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel that peers through the empty conformist culture of the 1950s suburbia. Their chemistry is much more abrasive this time than in Titanic and there is no happy ending to be had, but the movie serves as a powerful, cautionary warning on how a marriage should not be founded merely on the whims of the idealistic romance that we easily fall for in other movies.
Tell No One – One of the most engrossing “puzzle” movies in some time, Guillaume Canet’s adaptation of the American crime novel by Harlan Coben lays out its labyrinthine plot with razor-sharp logical sense and precision. The flipside of the Korean thriller, The Chaser (which lays out all its clues in plain sight and just builds on mood and frustration to create suspense) but it is no less accomplished in keeping a tight rein on its complex story.
There were additionally some nice surprises: Cloverfield, Definitely, Maybe, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (as I have not been the biggest fan of the Apatow school of comedy), JCVD (with none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme delivering a real, full-blooded performance for the first time in a self-parodying role), Taken (a cool little action thriller from France starring Liam Neeson that will be released in the US on January 30) and Tropic Thunder.
Then there were the most disappointing movies: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (please stop turning to George Lucas for any more creative input), Quantum of Solace, Blindness, Get Smart, Righteous Kill, Doomsday, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
The worst movies of the year (in order of putridity): Rambo (a most hypocritically and sanctimoniously sadistic film and the sight of people cheering on the disgustingly ultra-glorified violence really disturbs me), The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, 10,000 B.C., The Love Guru, Fly Me to the Moon, 88 Minutes, The House Bunny, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (again, stop Lucas!), What Happens in Vegas, and Eagle Eye.
And finally, the cinematic carnage that is not worthy of being labeled a movie: The Hottie & the Nottie.